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Can Republicans hold 30 governors seats after the November election?

By Aaron Blake

Republicans are primed for big gains in both the House and Senate, but what about governor's races?

Optimism has been ticking up in GOP circles about the party's chances of turning in a huge cycle at the state level, too. And, to an extent, the talk is justified.

Republican Governors Association Executive Director Nick Ayers set the bar at 30 seats in an interview with National Public Radio last week, and Democrats are privately acknowledging they are unlikely to keep their current majority of governors.

Democrats currently hold 26 of 50 governor's seats, while Republicans hold 23. (The GOP took two Democratic seats in New Jersey and Virginia last year, but Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's switch from Republican to independent moved them from 24 to 23.)

That means, in order to meet Ayers' goal, the RGA would need a net gain of seven seats out of 20 Democratic and independent-held seats up this cycle.

There are many complicating factors at work, including: 1) the sheer number of competitive races on both sides (most of which are open seats and nearly half of which are considered toss-ups) 2) state-based races tend to be less influenced by the national political winds than federal contests and 3) not all states are created equal -- population-rich governorships tend to matter more than smaller-sized states by population particularly with a decennial redistricting cycle approaching.

In other words, handicapping the 37 governor's races is a far different exercise from handicapping the House and Senate.

So The Fix, as it often does, breaks it down. After the jump, we take a look at what could get the Republicans to 30 and what could keep them below that number.

Reasons Republicans crack 30

* Automatic gains
Republicans should be a lock to win at least three and maybe four Democratic-held seats in Kansas, Michigan, Tennessee and Wyoming. And Iowa and Oklahoma are looking like pretty solid opportunities, too. If Republicans win all six of these and split the "toss-up" races, that would get them very close to Ayers' 30-state goal.

Democrats, meanwhile, seem to have only a couple really great pickup opportunities in Hawaii and Connecticut. And the RGA even started running ads in Hawaii recently after seeing a poll that showed the race neck-and-neck.

* Money
The RGA has more money than any other major national campaign committee. (Worth noting: Unlike the federal campaign committees, the RGA and Democratic Governors Association can accept unlimited contributions.) At the end of June, the RGA had $40 million on hand, compared to $22 million for the DGA.

States have disparate laws when it comes to how that money can be spent but any way you slice it, the RGA's cash advantage looms large and could grow even further if current trends hold. That means under-funded GOP candidates like Hawaii Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona or Minnesota state Rep. Tom Emmer could benefit from last-minute ads that Democrats might not be able to match.

* Haley Barbour
The Mississippi governor and RGA chairman has all kinds of motivation to make sure Republicans win plenty of governor's races this cycle. First and foremost is his potential 2012 presidential bid, which could get a shot in the arm if he exceeds expectations. (It could also mean Republican governors with personal ties to Barbour in South Carolina and Iowa.)

The job is also a great way to build up goodwill in some key states and win plaudits in the chattering classes (which does matter when it comes to this stuff). Republicans rave about Barbour's political know-how as a former Republican National Committee chairman, and he's got a great opportunity to prove them right.

Reasons Democrats hold the GOP under 30

* Primaries
Republicans have had some doozies. They have beaten the snot out of each other in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. And Meg Whitman was forced to go to the right in California during her primary with state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

All six of these, if you're keeping score at home, are Republican-held seats (or, at least, they were until Crist went independent). The DGA can make a legitimate claim that GOP infighting has made its task easier in all of these races, and taking even a couple of them would go a long way toward thwarting a potential GOP wave.

* Trends
Recent polling has shown Republicans losing ground in some key states, including Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota and Oklahoma. And Colorado, once considered a prime GOP pickup opportunity, is now basically a lock to stay Democratic with the GOP vote split between little-known Republican nominee Dan Maes and former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is running as a third-party candidate.

Three of those states happened to hold primaries last week, and the DGA sent a memo holding them up as evidence that Republicans face problems this cycle too. (As we wrote, the Aug. 10 primaries may well have been the high point of the DGA's election cycle to date.) All have been considered toss-ups or GOP-leaning seats, and Republicans will have a hard time hitting 30 if they can't win at least three of the five.

* Candidates
There are a number of Republican candidates with plenty to prove when it comes to winning a big race. They include Emmer, Maes, Maine GOP nominee Paul LePage and either Republican running in Florida -- state Attorney General Bill McCollum and businessman Rick Scott. Also, the GOP nominee in Georgia, former Rep. Nathan Deal, left Congress this year under an ethics cloud.

If these candidates can't deliver in November, Republicans have real problems. National waves are great for sweeping in federal candidates who might not be considered great recruits, but governor's races, which are focused on state issues rather than national ones, are often more insulated from those trends.

* Big states
This is the big one, so to speak. Even as Republicans close in on a potentially big net gain, Democrats have real hope of winning in nine of the 10 biggest states (by population) on the map. They could take GOP seats in California, Texas, Florida and Georgia and may hold tough seats in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

If Republicans take a majority of governors seats but lose Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Texas, their redistricting advantage will be severely tempered. The redistricting value of a Republican governor in Texas, which could gain as many as four seats, is much greater than Vermont, Wyoming, Kansas and Hawaii combined.

While the idea of 30 seats may be useful in setting an expectations bar to determine a great night for Republicans there are a lot more variables at work than the size of a majority, and there are plenty of ways to interpret what constitutes a big GOP gain and what doesn't.

By Aaron Blake  |  August 16, 2010; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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